By Paul Salmon, Ph.D., M.S.
Whether the topic is exercise, flexibility, diet, fitness, intelligence, hair color, or practically anything else, making comparisons between ourselves and other seems to be the rule, rather than the exception.
Working out at the local fitness center not only provides an opportunity to get or stay in shape, but also as I recently heard someone say, a chance to ‘size up the competition.'' What struck me about this comment was how pervasive this theme is in so much of what we do day-to-day. There seem to be very few circumstances anymore that don''t invoke competitive aspirations. And in the realm of health and fitness, it''s not uncommon for competition to be used as a motivational
People often lose sight of the fact that the inspirational qualities of others really have more to do with an appreciation of what they have done with what they have, rather than on the specifics of their accomplishments. Think of someone you really admire, and you will probably be aware that your attitude is shaped as much by an appreciation of the circumstances of their lives as their actual accomplishments. Lance Armstrong is probably admired more for having persevered in the face of cancer than for the fact that he routinely won the Tour de France. Does it make sense to aspire to be Lance Armstrong and fantasize about winning the Tour? To me, this is a prescription for envy and futility. On the other hand, drawing inspiration from the way he accepted the reality of his situation, and persevered in the face of a life-threatening challenge can be applied by all of us in the context of our personal circumstances, which are as unique and individualized as those of Lance Armstrong.
In terms of health and wellness, although the inspirational qualities of other people can serve to some extent as a guide or beacon, it''s important that they not detract from an understanding and appreciation of the qualities that we bring to the table as we are, in the present moment. The idea here is to be like a good cook, who can take whatever is on hand and prepare a satisfying, even in the absence of exotic ingredients, expensive equipment, and the latest kitchen gadgetry. Working with what we have — and who we are — is one of the most fundamental ideas underlying many meditative and contemplative practices. Related to this is cultivating a heightened sense of awareness of personal circumstances as they develop and change on a moment-by-moment basis.]
One exercise-related application of this principle comes from the Heritage Family Study, a multi-site study undertaken in the early 1990''s that evaluated the impact of exercise and physical activity on oxygen uptake and various metabolic indices. A key stimulus for the study was prior evidence of significant individual differences in response to the same exercise stimulus. That is, any two people participating in exactly the same exercise program are likely to attain different results. Results of this study confirmed that individual difference factors in response to exercise are substantial, and should be taken into account in designing and assessing fitness programs. Finding out where you fit on a broad response continuum is a vital aspect of self-knowledge and self-understanding. So the next time you notice yourself making comparisons with others about fitness, flexibility, or strength, keep in mind the importance of finding your own path and staying on it.
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